Emily Davidson is a writer from Saint John, New Brunswick, living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her poetry has appeared in publications including Arc, CV2, The Fiddlehead, Poetry is Dead, Room, subTerrain, and The Best Canadian Poetry 2015. Her fiction has appeared in Grain and Maisonneuve. Emily holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and works as an editor for a content marketing agency. Her poetry collection, Lift, was released in spring of 2019 from Thistledown Press.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I think receiving that first emphatic Yes has built a foundation under some walls I didn’t know were crumbling. Holding my work between covers, as an object with page numbers has been a surreal experience. And it’s given me a good reason to share my writing—it’s easy to hand people a book. It’s a measurable thing we all understand.
Because Lift took seven years to find a home, it contains both recent work and earlier pieces. The recent poems are more honest and pared back—I ran out of things to write about that were comfortable, so was left no option but to wander off into the uncomfortable. The final manuscript is more polished, honest, and well-rounded than it would have been had I received an acceptance in year one. And that’s a comfort.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing fiction and poetry simultaneously. I came to poetry as a young person with a lot of feelings, and I came to fiction as a child with a lot of imagination. My childhood dovetailed with the beginning of word processors in schools, and watching words creep across the screen from my fingertips still gives me a thrill.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Poems generally pop out whole, fairly quickly. They’re the creatures of a spark. I try to catch as much as I can in the moment, then leave them alone to germinate. When I come back later on, the editing pen comes out, and we see what we’re actually working with.
When it comes to fiction, I’m terrible at knowing that I’m starting a project until I’m somewhere in the middle. It’s a slow process for me—characters unfold a scene at a time, piecemeal, and I can’t seem to do outlines: if I know where the story is going, I lose all impetus to write it. I’m writing to discover. It’s not the best system: a lot of the time all I discover are dead ends.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem most often begins with the listening part of my brain receiving some sort of radio transmission. A weird image, a line, an experience. The sluice gate is open, and a small flood has come in. It’s my job to respond as fast as I can.
It’s only after I take down a large handful of transmissions that I can tell if I’m assembling a project. As they accumulate, the pieces might start to point to themes, and so I can write to fill in the gaps. But it’s not yet been intentional on my part: the conscious decision to write a book about subject X has not happened to me. But there’s always time!
The process for fiction is similar, except that scenes are less about inspiration and a bit more about “what happens next.” As long as I have that question to answer, I can wade in.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love readings. My grandmother is a well-known (in East Coast terms) singer in Nova Scotia, and I like to think some of her flair found its way into my DNA—I love a stage. I love finding out what words I don’t know how to pronounce until I’m saying them out loud in rehearsal.
In terms of creative process, readings feel like a great testing ground and conclusion for a piece of work. I enjoy engaging with the electricity that an audience brings to a space, respecting and trying to add to that energy. I want to present in a way that expresses gratitude and gives something back. I also usually get to hear from other poets during an evening, which can inspire the poetry part of my brain to pull up its socks.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t know that the questions I’m asking with my work are different from anyone else’s—I spend my time on why and how and who and where. But where I point my questions might be unique to me. I’m interested in the why of my own life, the who underneath a person I’ve met, the where of my surroundings. I like to use language to pick apart the mechanics of life to find the magic.
I wonder if the current questions include things like How do we do better? and What do I do with this hurt? and Where do I belong? and How do we survive? My little attentions are modest runs at those concerns.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
It may be that the role of the writer lately has been to say “Here’s where it hurts.” I think societally we are in a time of identifying and calling out suffering, naming it, being unwilling to bury or cover it up. And that’s vital work.
And there is also the part of writing that is “Here’s something beautiful.” Here’s a story, here’s a memory, here’s a joke. The act of connecting, communicating, sharing is also the writer’s business. So maybe I think of the writer as chronicler.
At summer camp, we carved our names into our bunks. “Emily wuz here.” It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s what we’re still doing. We were here, we were here, we were here.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Both, oh my land, both. Having Michael Kenyon edit Lift made the book so much more than it was to begin with—he pushed me, very gently, on the order of the manuscript, the poems included and left to the side, the section headings, the themes. But I really had to keep coming to the table, and it was raw. I took a day off work in the fall to implement a round of edits and ended up spending the day wandering my apartment in circles crying (this is probably the most poet thing I will ever admit to). The editing process felt like someone had pulled all the feathers off my beautiful poems, and I had to decide how to reassemble them. (This is zero commentary on Michael, he was a gem.) “Kill your darlings” is merciless and unkind, is what I think I’m saying. I love darlings. More darlings.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When in doubt, sleep on it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’m quite strategic in moving between genres, in that I cheat on poetry with fiction and I cheat on fiction with poetry. If a poem is giving me grief, I can show it I’m not bothered by bashing out some prose. If I’m stuck in a story, I can listen for the light footsteps of poetry and be released for a while. Having multiple projects on the go lets me feel I’m getting away with something at all times.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Routine is a wonderful idea that I have in no way been able to implement the last few years. Like many writers, I work full-time, so my Monday to Friday is a cycle of getting up, going to work, giving my best energy, and then coming home to lie down. I don’t love this; I want to do better. I recently went away for the weekend with some writer friends, and just the value placed on writing time—I’d forgotten how important it is to value your practice and prioritize it. I’d gotten a little burnt out, I think, a little disheartened. I’m trying to woo my practice back now, gently, with cookies.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
This question is tricky for me, as I’m in a season/coming out of a season of great stall. I’m talking years. And I don’t know that I did a good job of returning, but I will say that one helpful tactic I took (mostly as I had no other option) was to treat myself as the project, for a while. I did everything but write: I went to therapy. I switched careers. I moved apartments. I went on dates. I turned over all the rocks to see if some other aspect of my life could use my attention. And I don’t know if I’ve figured it out yet, but I do know that writers are not machines, and that’s progress.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Mmmm, the spray off the ocean. Pine trees and sea salt. Add in a bit of sulphur, and you’ve got Saint John.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I quite often come to poems via visual art and movies. A trip to the art gallery is a great way to inspire poems, and I love trying out other realities in film. There’s a poem in Lift that was directly inspired by a video I saw on the New York Times of various Swedes deciding whether or not to jump off a high dive. Because I truck in images, what I see is direct fodder for what I write.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I think my work is most in context among the East Coast poets, and that’s thanks to the influence of Anne Compton and Anne Simpson. I’ve been encouraged by incredible instructors: Rhea Tregebov, Robert Moore, Keith Maillard. My ear for story was set young by L.M.Montgomery, C.S. Lewis. And then there are the writer peers who hold me up: andrea bennett, Ben Rawluk, Erika Thorkelson, Leah Horlick, Michelle Deines, Natalie Thompson, Jordan Hall. The list is long. I’m lucky.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Publish a novel.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
In my early twenties, I flirted with the idea of pursuing acting. I think some of what makes a good writer applies to theatre—it’s a world of words and listening, communicating and radical acts of vulnerability.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was something I did that scratched the itch of being alive. It had the side benefit of earning me praise from others, and I’m very motivated by approval. Also, I auditioned for theatre school and didn’t get in.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m in the process of finishing Anna Maxymiw’s Dirty Work, and she does such a raw dance with language—it’s muscular and gutsy. And the last film that really shook me was The Wife—Glenn Close burns the place down.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Finding my way out of a dry spell. I’ve tried bullying and wheedling and therapy. All that’s left to me now is a sort of tender, feigned disinterest. I’m hoping the writing will come back to me like a cat. I wrote a short story this week. That’s something.